It may be too soon in his career for R&B star John Legend to completely own his stage name, but Saturday night at Avalon the former John Stephens proved that he's intent on paying in full to make it happen.
In a 1-hour, 40-minute set that was hot and cool but never cold, the young Ohio native poured his heart and considerable vocal talents into songs from his Grammy-winning 2004 debut "Get Lifted" and the just released follow-up "Once Again."
Whether working the sold - out crowd from the lip of the stage or seated at his grand piano in front of his tight if somewhat anonymous eight-piece band -- save the trio of animated backing vocalists -- Legend's enthusiasm for the task at hand never wavered.
The highlights tended to come in three categories.
There were the energetic songs infused with a little hip-hop flavor that got the crowd singing and bopping along like "Used to Love U" and "Stereo" which got over mainly on energy and attitude. More breezily elegant tracks like the droll bossa nova "Maxine" and "P.D.A. (We Just Don't Care)," with its uptown urbanity, drew less fervent response but allowed Legend a more expansive songwriting and vocal identity. And then there were the ballads, which ranged from the classic turn-the-lights -down- low Motown-style soul of "Slow Dance" -- for which he plucked a dance partner from the audience, mimicking other cozy couples in the club -- and the more introspective, almost folky, "Show Me."
While Legend ably worked the more modern sounds of the first style, he appeared most comfortable in the courtly role of storyteller and balladeer. So much so that the generally well-paced show began to ebb near its conclusion as the slow jams, including his intimate breakout hit "Ordinary People," began to pile up with élan but not rhythmic relief.
Legend's songs mostly concern matters of the heart with a dash of playful sex appeal; mercifully, his soft-spoken yet self-assured stage patter excluded vulgar innuendo and he skipped the canned bump and grind employed by some of his peers.
(When Legend took off his jacket, he just took it off, paying no visible heed to the grateful hoots coming from pockets of the crowd.)
Saturday night, Legend let the music do the talking, and it had some sweet things to say.
Would-be pop idol Robin Thicke, who has worked as a songwriter-producer with artists like Usher, Faith Evans, and Jordan Knight, opened with a set showcasing his considerable falsetto and soul-saturated tracks from "The Evolution of Robin Thicke."